Some thoughts on education

The Turnbull government have been out and about doing education policy this week. Two things – they will be throwing more money at primary and secondary education and throwing less money at universities. In general that’s probably not a bad place to start – but the devil is always in the detail.

Simply throwing money at a problem is seldom a good policy. That normally involves throwing good money after bad. The problems with the schooling system is not due to a lack of money but rather poor quality pedagogic strategies.  It isn’t clear to me why the government wants to fund schools when they should be funding children via their parents. Rather than funding school on the basis of the SES status of their post code why not means test the income of parents and funds kids irrespective of the school they attend?

Then the government intends to make university students pay more and at lower levels of income  for their education. In general this is a good thing. At the same time, however, the government will be paying less to the universities to provide that teaching. So what do I predict is going to happen:

  • Universities will substitute away from expensive teaching activities and towards inexpensive teaching activities. So expect to see more business and law students and fewer engineering students.
  • Universities will substitute away from now slightly lower profit margin students to relatively higher profit margin students, so expect to see more international students and/or fee paying students.

I find it strange that the government is cutting the more value adding activity of universities (i.e. teaching) and still throwing money at the lower value-add activity that is research. This is consistent with the notion that university research is a primary driver of innovation and growth  (it’s is a nice story, but probably not true).

Then we have seen some talk of the government introducing a loan establishment fee for so-called HELP loans.  Not a bad idea if the government were to actually establish a loan.

Attempting to starve universities of money in the hope of driving change is a waste of time. It will have the effect of making life difficult for many sessional staff  but not much beyond that. If the government were keen to implement change in the university system they would look to modify the governance of universities. I would look to making, at least, two changes:

  • University councils must be made up of alumni and donors.
  • University councils must have, at least, half (if not more) of its members elected by the alumni.

Those would be serious reforms beyond just playing money games.

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23 Responses to Some thoughts on education

  1. Stephen Sasse

    Tertiary education funding also needs to take into account that the sector has a massively bloated overhead. Taxpayer funds should be contingent on administrative overhead being capped as a percentage of total salaries. A real-world rule of thumb is that head office staff overhead should be less than 7.5% of total staff.

    And as Victor Davis Hanson points out this morning, universities are increasingly not creating value for students, employers or taxpayers:
    http://victorhanson.com/wordpress/potemkin-universities/

  2. Anthony Park

    This is consistent with the notion that university research is a primary driver of innovation and growth (it’s is a nice story, but probably not true).

    In biomedical research we have the so-called ‘valley of death’ funding issue. Whereby technologies made here have trouble getting commercialized due to lack of funding (or the researcher unable to find willing funding). So, in my experience its often easier to export the technology to a collaborator in the US or Japan.

    From a societal perspective, there is possibly an argument that the hard science people at the lab bench should also be teaching undergraduates. While most researchers trend politically towards the left, it is hard to stay employed without constant critical thinking, and at least those thought patterns get passed on. The pure economic return of funding expensive research to make better teachers (I’m guessing) is probably very low.

  3. JC

    Lord, the D’rats are just fucking scum.

    Here they are taunting the GOP once the floor vote count is passes 216. They think Trumpcare will automatically give them the house and Senate next year if the politik against it hard enough.

    They are terrible people.

  4. teddy bear

    The reality is universities are broken beyond repair and have been for quite some time. They have been reducing relevant course content and adding irrelevant and political garbage into their courses for decades.

    What is the point of a university degree for a business hiring when you almost need to train the person from scratch, not only that but you also then have to deal with all the other nonsense that universities have rammed down their students throats.

    When I went to Uni for a few years back around 2000 nearly a third of my subjects in the first 2 years had little or no relevance to my degree the first year was the worst for it. (They probably figure that seeing as though many students drop out during the first year its best to ram as much crap down the students throats as they can.) Then there was the insane price of textbooks some of which were never opened, almost $500 for one that was never used, and this has only gotten worse since I left as many universities now require textbooks or subscriptions to a textbox provider to begin the course.

    The first year is almost a total waste, the second you are starting to get into the actual content, and the third is mostly full content (don’t know if it still is), but then you get to the last year and you need to present a worthless thesis which takes half the final year. The total hours spent attending lectures/tutorials is far less than than a full school week.

    Then there is the major problems with content delivery, with uni’s still insisting on building and maintaining massive lecture theaters which serve no purpose with digital delivery available. Add to that all the sporting facilities that are barely ever used but are demanded by the student bodies. When I was at Uni there was a huge outcry from the engineering and like department’s because the couldn’t get enough funds to purchase equipment for training while massive amounts of money was being spent on refurbishments, maintaining sporting grounds and facilities etc.

    If you cut out all the crap in the courses, went to full digital delivery of lectures and removed all the useless lecture theatres, sporting grounds and facilities etc, not only would students pay a fraction of what they are now but they would be finishing at least a year earlier, and it would not be much to push that to half the time to finish. This will never happen though because the people that run and profit from them see them as a wonderful cash cow and brainwashing tool.

  5. Confused Old Misfit

    “why not means test the income of parents and funds kids irrespective of the school they attend?”

    Because there is a concern (an arguably justifiable concern) that the money might not be used for the purpose for which it was intended.

    Two things need to happen with respect to Universities. (Probably more, but it’s early in the day for me):
    University entry should be, scholastically, more difficult to obtain.
    University funding should be based on the number of professorial level classroom teaching positions, weighted such that “Women’s Studies” attracts negative funding while Nuclear Physics (or some other STEM subject) attracts 110% or some such thing.

  6. Anthony Park

    What is the point of a university degree for a business hiring when you almost need to train the person from scratch

    This is also the case in academic research. The students are great but require a lot of training to get to basic competency. Its often worse when taking a student from a non-Go8 uni. All the American students seem to have higher competency and organisation, would love to know what they do differently and teach it here.

    The first year is almost a total waste, the second you are starting to get into the actual content, and the third is mostly full content (don’t know if it still is), but then you get to the last year and you need to present a worthless thesis which takes half the final year. The total hours spent attending lectures/tutorials is far less than than a full school week.

    Yes its largely like this, but it is catering to student demand (many don’t know what they want to specialize in). So, doing this is beneficial as a whole, but disadvantages students who know exactly what they want.

  7. stackja

    My private school in the 1950s worked on the smell of an oily rag. All at my school, as I remember learnt their three Rs. Some better than others. I was not a good student so ended up as clerk. I helped in the office and kept papers in order etc because of my basic education. Again because of my basic education, I found basic office computer programs easy to understand. I am amazed at the lack of knowledge of many today.

  8. Boambee John

    Doomlord

    I agree largely with teddy bear’s point about moving to digital lecture delivery. This clears a way to get around the problem that lecturers are of variable quality. Each university should aim for digital delivery (on line or via DVD) of lectures by the best in the field, not just those employed by a particular university.

    There will be issues about tutorials (although some of these could be on line), and subjects with practical elements, requiring laboratory space and equipment. These, however, should not be insurmountable.

    Another idea, for which I have no simple solution, would be to link future funding to HELP/HECS repayments. If few graduates of a particular university make repayments, perhaps that university should lose funding? Perhaps repaid loans could be included in future budgets?

    As I said, I do not have a specific proposal to do this, just an idea. Other Cats and Kittehs might come up with ideas. Basically, linking future budgets with repayments gives universities real skin in the game. They do not have that now.

  9. teddy bear

    Anthony the problem is that it is misguided demand caused by the mantra that everyone should have a uni degree so far too many people go into uni when the do not need to and thus eventually drop out.

    Having a Uni degree only helps you if you can get a job in that field, if you can’t it is at best a waste of time and money, and worst if you are dumb enough to actually put it into your CV it will lessen your job prospects when applying for unrelated jobs.

    We need to stop telling kids they have to go to Uni to be successful, or that just having a degree will somehow help them in life. It is a rotten lie pushed by both sides of politics, I dropped out after 2.5 years after realising that I would eventually get a degree and have no idea what I was doing because I was just coasting through, not only that I knew by then that the reality of the job would be just another desk job.

    I was stuck with a $11,000 debt that eventually ended up costing near $16,000 after it was all paid off and I felt like a total failure for dropping out. I consider myself lucky as at least I don’t have a degree that I can’t use like so many other people these days. I have moved on and have found and am now doing what I want to do, but how many of those with degrees are stuck trying to find jobs in that field and feeling like a failure because of the lie’s pushed by our society that everyone should have a degree and that it will lead to success.

    You could say that those people should harden up, and you would be right, it doesn’t change the fact though that it is a unnecessary, expensive and time consuming kick in the guts that many people have to overcome.

  10. Fat Tony

    What is it with Uni textbooks? Are there “incentives” for the Unis to specify certain texts?
    The local Uni (USQ) used to print some of their own texts – they were cheap and very good. Not full of waffling bullshit and glossy pages.

  11. teddy bear

    Boambee John when I was at Uni the maths tutorials were delivered by third year students in a small classrooms. The lectures were held in a giant lecture theatre delivered by 1 person, who at the end would declare to the packed hall that if anyone had any issues to come up and ask, a practical impossibility due to sheer numbers of many students taking up that offer. After a few weeks the hall was only about 2/3 full, I stopped going after that but I imagine it would have continued to lessen.

    The only value I got out of that course was provided by the third year maths student running our group. They actually allowed you to purchase the maths lecture notes and quite cheaply too. The entire subject could easily be done using a digital classroom with the student reading the notes beforehand.

    The subjects where you actually need to do practical work with equipment would need classrooms, but as I said above when I was at Uni those subjects where struggling to get the equipment because so much money was being blown on other crap that is not needed. I seriously doubt that has changed. If you take a wander around a University you will discover the buildings devoted to practical work with equipment take up just a fraction of the Universities grounds.

  12. teddy bear

    Fat Tony Universities have their own book stores, just think of what the markup would be on a $500 textbook.

    These days though I believe you are required to have a subscription to a textbook service where you do not actually get the textbook only granted access to it which is removed once the course ends (unless you keep paying of course). I would imagine that universities get some sort of reseller fee out of it. How they get away with blatant anti competitive behaviour I would like to say I don’t know but we all know just how well the ACCC and the like work, not to mention the rampant cronyism that society is drowning under.

  13. Tim Neilson

    I agree largely with teddy bear’s point about moving to digital lecture delivery. This clears a way to get around the problem that lecturers are of variable quality.

    I’m told that in some courses where the lecturer is crap, groups of students get one “volunteer” to go, just to find out what topics are discussed, then go online to get downloads of lectures on the relevant matters. Yale chemistry lectures are popular, I’m told. It works best for subjects that are the same worldwide, of course, such as STEM. Less use for e.g. Australian law.

    Fat Tony Universities have their own book stores, just think of what the markup would be on a $500 textbook

    Just think of getting tenure, writing a book, then making it a compulsory text for your students, and collecting the royalties.

  14. Boambee John

    teddy bear

    I have vivid memories after more than 50 years of a maths lecturer carefully turning over the yellowed pages of his lecture notes as he delivered the lecture.

    That said, he was actually a good lecturer, but hopeless with students. His lectures delivered on line would have been great, as long as good tutors were available.

    The future for the humanities is digital lectures with personal tutorials. More difficult with practical subjects, but even then many lectures could be digital.

    I suspect that we are largely in furious agreement.

  15. Boambee John

    Fat Tony

    Are you in Toowoomba?

    I lived in Mathew Street, off Drayton Road, in my youth. I remember when the CAE, later USQ, was established in some paddocks in the middle of nowhere! Much changed these days.

  16. Mellen

    Once upon a time, primary school teachers taught basic skills “the three rs” to everyone with some basic social studies, music and sport thrown in. Almost all their charges started secondary school with literacy and numeracy skills enabling them to take part in secondary school.

    Secondary teachers were basically interested in weeding out the non performers in their given subject with the idea that those that excelled in particular subjects would go on to university and the rest of the population would go off to trades or commerce.

    Somewhere in the 80’s the philosophy changed. All of a sudden primary teachers were picking winners, deciding sometimes as early as year 1 that a child would never achieve much or would be a loser and were of no concern to that particular teacher. In other words the role of the secondary teacher was being taken by the primary teachers who basically didn’t bother much with anyone deemed a loser.

    As a consequence large numbers of children were starting secondary education without basic literacy and numeracy. Secondary school for them became a glorified childminding centre. Just to add insult to injury the secondary and tertiary sector suddenly decided that everyone was capable of tertiary education.

  17. Irreversible

    Given that universities have high fixed costs it makes sense for them to accept large numbers in the courses of least operating cost, like economics or accounting. But they can’t avoid the demand side, where smarter students will be well aware of the career benefits in studying engineering or science. It will be interesting to see how the pricing of foreign student offerings turns out. Also: how many universities will end up looking like vocational training institutions?

  18. Dauf

    Mal has moved from useless Mal to ‘appearance Mal’ appearing to do stuff, but not the stuff that makes a difference; just the stuff that plays well on TV and for people who don’t think anything through

  19. Fat Tony

    Boambee John
    #2372059, posted on May 5, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    Fat Tony

    Are you in Toowoomba?

    I lived in Mathew Street, off Drayton Road, in my youth. I remember when the CAE, later USQ, was established in some paddocks in the middle of nowhere! Much changed these days.

    Yes, I live in Toowoomba.

    I think it was the DDIAE originally – the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education. There wasn’t much there on-site those days.

    It certainly has grown over the years.

  20. ned

    “The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues, and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.” –  H.L. Mencken

  21. Sydney Boy

    Prior to re-joining the Army on a two year contract, I spent the previous four years as a university lecturer. In my field of engineering, classes were quite small, and it was more like teaching than lecturing. I think the second year only had 40 students, of whom 30 would generally come to class. My lectures were recorded and available online afterwards for those who didn’t come to class, or for those who did to review later. I also had a couple of subjects that were wholly on-line, and I detested them. Lecturing in class is far more interesting and engaging, and as a lecturer, I could get all those non-verbal clues when something needed explaining in more detail, and I could use the white boards to draw up examples and equations. Plagiarism and cheating was also much lower in my classroom classes than in the on-line classes. The emails and questions I received for my on-line courses were sometimes staggeringly stupid and a clear indication that students had not read the notes or even watched / listened to the presentation.

    As for research, some of the more senior lecturers, including professors and associate professors had very light teaching loads due to their research etc. and some of the research was absolute rubbish. I’m sure it was all conducted professionally and with good academic rigour; but seriously who gives a fuck about some of the topics – how climate change could affect the prevalence of industrial accidents due to reduced air quality in WA – or influencing employee perception of safety initiatives in the chemical industry in Ghanzou, China?

  22. Hydra

    I got through a double degree in economics and law without attending a lecture or buying a textbook in the last 4 of 5 years.

    University is a fucking rort.

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